This article was written by Jeff Katz
Earl Williams’ career was one marked by achievement and controversy. During his newsworthy career, spanning parts of eight seasons, Williams reached the heights of a 1971 National League Rookie of the Year season, and the low of leaving baseball as persona non grata at the age of 29.
Born July 14, 1948 in Newark, New Jersey, Earl Craig Williams, Jr. was the son of second-generation Southern migrant workers. There was a ball playing history in the Williams family, as it is said that Earl’s grandmother played in the sandlots of Augusta, Georgia, with the children of Ty Cobb. Earl’s father was a factory worker, and the family was poor. After his parents’ divorce, Earl’s mother, Dolores, remarried and Earl gained a half-brother and a half-sister.
Earl Jr. claimed he was a “loner” as a child, yet he always found an outlet in team sports. Earl’s mother, Mrs. Dolores Reilly, recalls Earl always playing ball as a kid. Earl played Little League baseball and later blossomed as an athlete at Montclair High School. He played football and basketball, averaging 20 points per game on the hardwood and earning a scholarship from Ithaca College in upstate New York.
Although he was a great all around athlete, it was in baseball that Earl most excelled. Playing for legendary high school coach Clary Anderson, who also skippered future Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin and Johnny Carson’s sidekick Ed McMahon, Earl thrived as a pitcher. Earl also pitched American Legion ball, riding his three-speed English racer to and from his ballgames.
It was as a pitcher that Earl drew the attention of organized baseball. Scouts from Cleveland, Minnesota, Houston, Milwaukee and others watched Earl on the diamond. John (Honey) Russell, the Braves scout and former Seton Hall basketball coach, who earlier had signed Joe Torre, was very high on Earl. The Milwaukee Braves selected Williams with their number one pick, sixth overall, in the August phase of the 1965 draft. The temptation to possibly play with his hero Hank Aaron proved too great for Earl, and he gave up his scholarship to Ithaca.
He did not, however, give up his pursuit of college. The Braves paid Earl’s tuition for his first three years, where Earl was pool-shooting champ of the college. Earl studied broadcasting and journalism, and later on, between the 1971 and 1972 seasons, auditioned around New York City for radio jobs. Earl, then the reigning Rookie of the Year, gave it up because he felt the stations wanted someone “full-time.”
During Earl’s first two years at Ithaca, school took priority. Williams did not arrive at Spring Training until the school year ended, putting him behind the players who had reported on time. In 1966 he pitched 11 games, 61 total innings, at Sarasota (Gulf Coast), winning his only decision and recording a 3.10 ERA. He also played a lot of first base, playing 31 total games and hitting a thin .211 with only a single home run to his credit. Nonetheless, he showed the Braves enough so that he scrapped his pitcher’s glove and became a full-time position player.
In 1967, Earl was at West Palm (Single-A), where he hit .251 with 7 home runs, splitting time between first base and the outfield. An off-season knee injury suffered playing intramural basketball cost him two months of the 1968 season. He started 1968 back in West Palm (236, 0 HR in 50 games), later getting the call to Double-A Greenwood for only 8 games. Figuring he was at a turning point in his baseball career, Earl decided to forego school after the 1968 season and reported to Spring Training promptly in 1969. It proved to be a wise decision.
It was at Greenwood (Western Carolina) that Earl began his ascension to the Major Leagues. Earl was the talk of the town, hitting .340 with 33 homers and 107 runs batted in. The fans talked about his tape-measure shots, particularly about a drive that went 350 feet out, 80 feet up. Braves Farm Director Eddie Robinson compared Earl to Orioles’ star Frank Robinson. Earl led the league in total bases with 252 and intentional walks (12). Atlanta General Manager Paul Richards planned to convert the first baseman into a catcher and sent Williams to the instructional league before the 1970 season.
Most of 1970 was spent in Shreveport (Double-A, Texas League), where in 89 games Williams hit .318, with 19 homers and 63 RBI. He also played 22 games with Richmond (Triple-A, International League) and, with his star on the rise, Williams spent 10 games with the big league club and hit .368 in 19 at-bats. He made his major league debut on September 13, pinch-hitting for pitcher Bob Priddy. His first hit was single off Juan Marichal on the 16th. Earl’s last appearance in 1970 was a portent of things to come as he went 3 for 3, all doubles, with 2 RBI and 2 runs scored against Houston. After the 1970 season, it was back to working on his catching skills, this time in Puerto Rico.
Throughout his minor league career, Earl had never caught, spending his time at first and third base, with a bit of time in the outfield and shortstop. The Braves fully intended Earl to begin the 1971 season in Richmond, working on his catching, but a hot spring found Williams beating out Darrell Evans (who was later called up) for a spot on the Braves roster. Although he had been working on his catching in the off-season, Williams began the year as a backup to third baseman Clete Boyer and first basemen Orlando Cepeda. Boyer, after a heated contract battle, was soon released, and Cepeda was hampered with bad knees. Except for a partial game at catcher on May 23, Earl’s began playing regularly at third, sometimes at first.
Productivity at catcher was a huge problem for the 1971 Braves. Both Bob Didier and Hal King were exceptionally weak hitters, and on June 20, Manager Lum Harriss came to Williams and stunningly announced, “You’re my catcher.” Earl had no preparation for becoming a full time catcher in the Major Leagues, his May 23 appearance being his lone time behind the plate. His attitude toward catching would be a subject of controversy over his career. At the time of the move, Williams was ambivalent: “It’s okay… but I play where they put me.”
Williams told Sport Magazine in 1972, “My favorite position is batter,” and he played it well in 1971. On April 16 against the Phillies, Earl hit a two-run single for an 8-7 Braves victory, and the next day had the first of his five two-home run games of the season. On June 13, Williams had two three-run homers against the Astros, and on July 7 Earl pounded the Phillies again, this time with two home runs off of Barry Lersch. He won August player of the month honors in a media poll. For the year Earl had 33 homers and 87 RBI (fifth best in the NL), along with a respectable .260 average.
His fielding as a novice catcher was seen as remarkable at the time. Phil Niekro marveled at Earl’s ability to catch his knuckler, saying he caught as if he’d been “playing it for ten years.” Honey Russell said that Earl “isn’t far behind Johnny Bench as a catcher defensively.” In the Braves report in The Sporting News on July 24, Braves pitchers were quoted as saying Earl is “smart and calls a good game.” Also, his strong arm from his schoolboy pitching days served Williams well behind the plate. Earl himself would only offer that he had “plenty of room for improvement.”
Although Phillies rookie first basemen Willie Montanez was the early favorite for 1971 National League Rookie of the Year, Williams won the award with 75% of the vote.
Earl was a smart man who had attended three years of college and read avidly, with sociology his favorite subject. But Williams did notice that, while he was only the second catcher to ever win the NL Rookie of the Year, the first, Johnny Bench, was constantly doing endorsements. None came Earl’s way, and this bothered him.
One writer at the time described Earl as “militant.” Williams was also seen as “brash and cocky” by teammates. While his 1971 season showed how talented Earl was as a player, it also brought forward contradictory feelings toward him as a person. These contradictions would begin to surface starting in 1972.
Having signed a $35,000 contract in March, Williams reported to spring camp fifteen pounds overweight. Listed at 6’2″ and 220 lbs., he later admitted he might have been as much as 25 pounds more than that. It was easy for him to put on weight and he worked hard to take it off, although a few Atlanta scribes referred to him as “Fat Earl.” Nonetheless, a 475-foot home run hit that spring reinforced Earl’s power credentials.
Dizzy spells caused by migraine headaches in early May hospitalized Williams in Chicago, but he was soon back. The 1972 season was a near duplication of 1971 for Williams, as he clubbed 28 homers, with 87 RBI and a .258 average. The Braves faltered, from 82 wins to 70, and from 3rd to 4th in the NL West. Williams was seemingly in good favor on the team, with new backup catcher Paul Casanova calling him “a beautiful kid…” The good feelings soon changed.
In mid-October, Earl announced that he no longer wanted to be a catcher, and that the concentration needed for the position took away from his hitting. In December, a few Braves players offered that Earl “came up short defensively,” a far cry from the previous year’s comments. His 28 passed balls reinforced this new belief, but 21 came with Phil Niekro and his knuckleball on the mound. There were also whispers that Williams was not dedicated or enthusiastic about catching. Even baseball’s bad boy Denny McLain, Earl’s teammate for part of 1972, said Williams had “a bad attitude” because he would not catch when he wasn’t hitting. Williams was on the trading block.
An October 9 story in the New York Times includes the first trade rumor involving Earl Williams, with Earl and second basemen Felix Millan reportedly heading to the Mets in exchange for Jerry Grote, a fine fielding catcher, and young hurler Gary Gentry. The deal that was eventually made on November 30, 1972 was a blockbuster. Williams and minor leaguer Taylor Duncan were sent to the Baltimore Orioles for four players: starting second basemen Dave Johnson, catcher Johnny Oates and pitchers Pat Dobson and Roric Harrison. Mark Belanger, the Orioles’ fine fielding shortstop, was originally rumored to be part of the package, but stayed in Baltimore.
Reaction was immediate. Orioles ace Jim Palmer was a huge critic of the deal and the consensus was that Baltimore had given up too much. While Duncan had been a number one draft choice by the Braves, he was still limping from an ankle fracture. The positive reactions came from the two Earls, Weaver and Williams. Weaver was quoted as saying, “Get me Earl Williams and we’ll win the pennant,” although in his autobiography Weaver says he was always skeptical of the deal. For his part, Williams refuted that he had said he didn’t want to catch. He was thrilled with the trade and said, the “Orioles can count on me 100%.”
The 1973 season was filled with controversy and Earl Williams would end the year with a bad reputation that he never shed. While a tape measure home run in the spring showed that Earl had his power game intact, his complaint that the Orioles ran a “pitcher’s camp” was the first salvo in his season-long battle with the team. According to manager Earl Weaver, Williams would not work with catching coach Jimmy Schaffer, reportedly telling the coach “I don’t like this shit.” Williams also said “those goddamn bullpen catchers [should] warm up” the starters, prompting Andy Etchebarren to call Williams an “asshole.” Teammates expressed their displeasure at Williams’ lackadaisical play and wondered aloud why Weaver was not enforcing discipline, although the skipper yanked Earl after four innings of the first exhibition game for calling signals with his hand on his knees. Backup catchers Etchebarren and Elrod Hendricks criticized Weaver in the Baltimore press. Weaver maintained that his new catcher had “unbelievable natural abilities.”
In mid-April, Williams hit five homers in a six game stretch against the Yankees and Tigers. In May, Earl suffered a left ankle sprain that was slow to heal, and took two weeks to get back to speed. Williams was very open about his dislike of American League play, feeling “disoriented” as a fastball hitter in a league where pitchers would not challenge him. He noted that “the whole philosophy of the game is different” in the AL. While Williams was seen as a “major disappointment” with his .229 average, he was leading the team in home runs with 12 and RBI with 43 in the first part of 1973.
The first major blowup occurred when Williams missed the team bus to Fenway Park on June 24. Earl Weaver suspended him for the game, and Williams watched the contest from the stands. Weaver noted that there were “a lot of irritating little things” about Williams, one being his willingness to yell back at fans, which the skipper did not like. After a profanity laced post-game meeting, where Weaver said the big catcher could “pack his bags,” Williams was reinstated. Weaver denied there was any suspension at all, citing the lack of paperwork.
Peace reigned for eight days, until July 2, when Williams would not drop an argument with home plate umpire Joe Brinkman, leading to a shouting match with Weaver in the dugout. After the game there was a conference held between Williams and Weaver, also attended by the coaching staff and General Manger Frank Cashen. Williams often tried to play Cashen against Weaver, behaving demurely with the GM who then took his side in times of trouble.
As a result of the constant behavioral issues, the Baltimore fans began riding him in early August. Williams, unable to ignore the fans’ “non-acceptance,” flipped his helmet into the stands. Weaver was asked to try to get Williams to stop cursing near owner Jerry Hoffberger’s box. Williams was referred to as “Mr. Lethargic” by columnists and Orioles players chimed in as well. His teammates preferred Andy Etchebarren as catcher. Pitcher Jesse Jefferson said, “I want someone back there who knows what he’s doing.” The fact that former Oriole Davey Johnson was starring in Atlanta, breaking the record for home runs by a second basemen with 43, did not help the acceptance of Earl Williams. The new Oriole felt much of the criticism was racially motivated, which Weaver confirmed in his book, and Williams reported that he was receiving hate mail.
Earl led the team in home runs with 22 and was second behind Tommy Davis with 83 RBI. He increasingly filled in for the aging Boog Powell at first base, hitting against lefties. GM Frank Cashen later claimed he was unaware of the help Earl had gotten from playing in hitter friendly Atlanta Fulton County Stadium. A decade later, Weaver also cited Atlanta’s “little park” as a reason for Earl’s success there. The facts show something different, at least in terms of home runs. In 1971, Earl hit 14 homers in Atlanta, 19 away. In 1972, he hit 15 at home and 13 on the road. It was in Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium that a difference emerged with Williams hitting 13 of his 22 homers at home. The Orioles did not win the pennant as Earl Weaver had promised, but did get back to the playoffs where they were defeated by the defending champion Oakland A’s in five games. Williams had the club’s second highest playoff average (.278) and his one homer and four RBI were tied for the team led.
In the spring of 1974 the Orioles decided that if Earl played catcher only, he would concentrate more. Sadly, 1974 was a repeat of the turmoil of the year before. Weaver said Williams was “more recalcitrant” in his second year on the club. In late May, Earl was late to a game against the Yankees, claiming there was no wake-up call. Weaver took no action. On June 22, Earl was pulled from a game against the Royals when he lost his temper. Weaver noted that when Williams got angry he couldn’t control himself and was lost to the team for at least the next half inning. Weaver did say that it was still too early to give up on the 26-year-old catcher, but his play on the field was weak. Williams hit the fewest homers of his career, 14, and only drove in 52 runs with a .254 average. The Orioles did win the division but fell once again to Oakland. Earl played in only two playoff games and was hit hitless in six at bats. It was clear that the Earl Williams era in Baltimore was not working out.
The Orioles shopped Williams around at the winter meetings, but there were no takers, and Earl was in camp in the spring of 1975. O’s pitchers were again upset that Earl set up the same behind the plate for every pitcher, but there was still hope that if he played only catcher, he would play better. Lee May was acquired from Houston to play first full-time, and Dave Duncan was also acquired, hopefully to serve as a back-up catcher. Weaver began backtracking from his quote of late 1972, claiming he never said that getting Williams would guarantee the pennant. He blamed chief scout Jim Russo for embellishing whatever Weaver had really said. When writers would claim the O’s gave up four Major Leaguers for Williams, Weaver would remind them that they also got Taylor Duncan, although he would never appear for the Orioles in the majors. He also reminded critics that while the Orioles never won a pennant with the disappointing catcher, they did win two division titles.
On April 17 the Williams experiment finally ended. Whereas two-and-a-half years before, the Orioles had parted with four major leaguers to get Earl Williams, they could only get a minor league pitcher for him now. Williams was sent back to the Braves (with cash) in exchange for minor league hurler Jimmy Freeman. Mike Lum, the incumbent Braves first basemen was openly upset with the deal. Earl struggled in 1975, hitting only 11 homers, but his attitude seemed improved. While Earl played first base 90 times during the season (and only eleven as receiver), he said in November of that year that he would be willing to catch all of the time.
He did catch in 38 of the 61 games he played with Atlanta in 1976. On June 2, Williams hit 2 home runs against the Padres, but they were erased due to a rainout. The Braves sold Earl to the Expos on July 24, and Earl finished the year in Montreal, playing mostly at first. His power numbers increased slightly from the year before, as he had 17 HRs and 55 RBI, but, on March 28, 1977, Earl was released by Montreal.
He hooked up with the A’s for 1977, a team that was a shell of its recent dynasty. Splitting the year between first base, catcher and DH, Earl hit 13 homers, with 58 RBI, along with an average of .241. The A’s were dreadful, finishing one-half game behind the expansion Mariners for last place in the AL West, 38.5 games behind the first place Kansas City Royals.
Earl’s first year in Oakland was also marked by trouble. The A’s had a disgruntled group on the team, unhappy with skipper Bobby Winkles. Earl was the only one to speak out on record, claiming, “The coaching here is non-existent.” In criticizing the staff of Red Schoendienst, Cal Ermer and Lee Stange, Earl angered Winkles. Winkles said that if the young players on the A’s followed Williams, they would be “losers all their lives.” Williams picked up the gauntlet by stating while he’d been bad in 1977, he had had good years before. He wondered whom Winkles had ever won with, obviously unaware that Winkles had led Arizona State University to three NCAA championships as a college coach.
Despite all this, Earl returned to A’s spring training in 1978, but after breaking his thumb in March, was unable to play. He was released on May 17 and not one team claimed him off waivers. Earl was shocked and, in took the unusual step of placing an ad in the New York Times offering his services. The ad stated that Earl was looking for employment, gave his lifetime stats, and said his salary was reasonable. He had made $40,000 for the A’s. It went on to add that he was in excellent health and had no police record. Before closing with his mother Dolores’ phone number as contact information (as Earl had no phone in his Alameda, CA apartment), the ad said “HAVE BAT-WILL TRAVEL-WILL HUSTLE.” No talks followed and Earl was out of major league baseball at 29. He felt that his past run-ins with Earl Weaver were a major factor, and he accepted the part that his immaturity played in the ordeal.
Earl played in the Mexican League for two years, 1979 and1980. In 1979, he led the league in RBI with 112 for Durango, while hitting 20 homers with a .343 (11th best) average. He was at first base for 127 of the 134 games he played that season. The following year was not as kind, as Earl, now with Campeche, played in only 47 games, hitting .200, with only 6 HRs and 22 RBI. Speaking with Joe Durso in January 1981, Earl cited racial reasons for his banishment from the majors, as well as ownership collusion and his “unsavory” reputation. Williams reported to Pirates camp in 1981, and ended up signing with their AAA Portland Beavers, according to a May 1981 blurb in Sport Magazine. Beavers GM Dave Hersh signed many ex-big leaguers (Luis Tiant, Mike Anderson, Rusty Torres, Matt Alexander, Larvell Blanks and Roger Freed), in an attempt to boost attendance. However, Earl’s professional baseball contract card shows no action after his A’s release in May 1978 and he did not play at Portland that year.
Earl Williams, 1971 NL Rookie of the Year, had a life and career of dramatic swings. His power numbers for his first three years were first rate, but his pugnacious nature and willingness to speak out were constant trouble during his career. After 1980 he never played professional ball again. As he said in a Braves publication in 1976, “unusual things happen to me.”
After battling leukemia, Earl Williams died at his home in Somerset, New Jersey, on January 28, 2013.
Atlanta Braves’ 1976 Illustrated Yearbook
Boyle, Robert H. “Doing the Orioles Cha-Cha.” Sports Illustrated. July 23, 1973.
Durso, Joseph. “Earl Williams Tries to Overcome His Status as Baseball’s Outcast.” New York Times. January 11, 1981.
Hemphill, Paul. “My Favorite Position is Batter.” Sport. August, 1972.
Tommy Kay’s Big Book of Baseball, 1974
Kornheiser, Tony. “Williams: A Slugger Nobody Wants”. New York Times. June 14, 1978.
Miami Herald. March 19, 1973
New York Daily News. December 30, 1972.
Schlossberg, Dan. “Cagey Rookie Makes It Big.” Black Sports. January 1972.
Schlossberg, Dan. “Will the Sophomore Jinx Hobble Earl Williams?” Baseball Digest. May 1972
Sport. “Long in the Tooth Beavers,” Sport Talk Column, May 1981.
The Sporting News Baseball Guide. 1980, 1981
The Sporting News. Various issues. 1971-1981
Washington Post. June 9, 1972, December 2, 1972, July 7, 1973, June 25, 1973, August 7, 1973.
Weaver, Earl, with Berry Stainback. It’s What You Learn After You Know It All That Counts. Doubleday, 1982.
Zanger, Brenda. Major League Baseball 1972.